HC Deb 25 January 1999 vol 324 cc10-3
7. Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe (Bradford, South)

If he will make a statement on the security situation in Kosovo. [65530]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. George Robertson)

The continuing killings and provocations by both the Kosovo Liberation Army and the Serbs constitute a spiralling escalation of violence which risks creating a humanitarian catastrophe. We all deplore this.

Verifiers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe continue to report on the situation on the ground and to seek ways of reducing tension. Their constructive efforts have, in the past few days, secured the release of a number of hostages. The only way in which long-term stability can be restored in Kosovo is through political dialogue. The Contact Group, which met on 22 January, is intensifying its effort to cajole both sides towards a settlement. We and the other North Atlantic Treaty Organisation allies nevertheless are taking preparatory steps to ensure that we are ready to take military action should this be required.

Four more RAF Harriers are shortly to join the four other RAF Harriers and the much larger allied air force, which is already in Italy, and HMS Iron Duke is in the Adriatic as part of a NATO force.

Nothing can justify the tragic events of 15 January, when 45 Kosovar Albanians were massacred, but both sides must share the blame for the on-going conflict. The Kosovo Liberation Army continues to use violence and terror against the people of Kosovo, but the primary responsibility for the crisis in Kosovo clearly lies with President Milosevic. He must show the vision to negotiate and reach a settlement now.

Mr. Sutcliffe

I thank my right hon. Friend for that full answer. He will know of the horror felt by people in this country at the events in Kosovo. What action is being taken? How many British troops and observers are deployed and how does that compare with those of other nations?

Mr. Robertson

I welcome my hon. Friend's question. As of 19 January, 866 OSCE verifiers were on the ground in Kosovo, of whom 110 are being provided by the United Kingdom. I pay tribute to them and to their leader General John Drewienkiewicz, who is understandably known as General DZ—I deliberately stumbled over the pronunciation so that hon. Members would understand why, Madam Speaker. All those 110, as well as the other members of the verification mission, have shown considerable courage, great skill and, in many cases, bravery, in the job that they are doing. The number of verifiers will continue to grow until it reaches a steady state at 1,500, with the United Kingdom providing 150. Additionally, we have troops in Macedonia as part of the extraction force, and Royal Air Force planes are also involved in the air surveillance operations over Kosovo.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

Does not the presence of unarmed observers not only put their lives at risk in an unprecedented way, but offer both sides a hostage-taking opportunity? Does the Secretary of State think that our unarmed observers in Kosovo will have taken heart from the news that Her Majesty's Government recently begged the Yemeni Government, in a parallel situation, not to take military action against hostage takers?

Mr. Robertson

I will not rise to the comparison with the Yemen. General DZ and others who went out to Kosovo and who have knowledge on the ground believe that it is imperative for members of the verification force to be unarmed because of their role. They are the eyes and ears of the outside world in what is a very troubled area at present. They went into Kosovo as a result of the pressure caused by the military action threatened against President Milosevic and the Serbian authorities. As part of the Holbrooke agreement, Milosevic is obliged to guarantee their safety. They are in a dangerous situation and I would not underestimate it—nor would they—but they are playing a vital role. They have saved countless thousands of lives as a simple result of being there. All the time, President Milosevic has to recognise that Nato's actord—the activation order, which enables NATO to decide on air strikes when we choose—remains valid.

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan)

Given the vital role of NATO in the security situation in Kosovo, and given that the Washington summit later this year is to consider a new role and concept for the organisation on its 50th anniversary, will my right hon. Friend and the Government study that security situation to find out whether we can expand NATO's role as a peacekeeping force for policing human rights and avoiding conflict throughout the world?

Mr. George Robertson

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. For many years, NATO's role was to act as the counterbalance to the threat of the Warsaw pact and the Soviet Union, but it has come into its own in the modern world as a force and power for good. We must recognise that as winter came on and 250,000 Kosovar Albanians faced death through cold or starvation, it was NATO's integrated military command and planning that created the situation where those lives were saved. I know that my hon. Friend well recognises that the situation is infinitely complex. It is not susceptible to easy, glib solutions and I hope that no hon. Member would suggest that it could be. The military pressure is still on President Milosevic. The ultimate responsibility is still on him to sign up to the clear, practical and modest demands of the international community, as articulated in the Contact Group last Friday. Both sides have a responsibility to adhere to the ceasefire, but if President Milosevic signed up to the list of demands, peace could be achieved very quickly.

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon)

The Secretary of State told us that NATO countries are making the necessary preparations to resume the bombing campaign against Serbia. Is it true that at the Contact Group meeting or afterwards, Britain joined other European nations in vetoing United States proposals to give Milosevic a 96-hour ultimatum before commencing bombing?

Mr. Robertson

There was no veto on any proposal put forward. The Contact Group met at officials level last Friday and put forward a series of demands in a document that has been published. The actords remain in place. That in itself is an ultimatum to President Milosevic that unless he complies with the agreement that he voluntarily reached, the actords can very quickly be made meaningful in terms of air power.

Mr. Maples

I take it from that answer that the newspaper reports are correct that the United States proposals were not acceptable to other European countries. I want to press the Secretary of State further on Government policy, particularly on the use of ground troops. In a question to the Prime Minister last Wednesday, the Liberal Democrat leader said that if all other means of preventing Kosovo from descending into civil war fail, we may … have to consider a NATO ground force in Kosovo. The Prime Minister replied: we would certainly not rule out the possibility of participation in the use of ground forces."—[Official Report, 20 January 1999; Vol. 323, c. 904.] That clearly implies the use of ground forces in Kosovo before a peace agreement has been concluded. Is it now the policy of the Government that British ground forces might be deployed in Kosovo while Serbia and the KLA are still fighting?

Mr. Robertson

It is a neat debating trick, but it is not fair or reasonable to say that, because I made it clear that no veto was necessary last Friday, I am admitting that there was some veto on an ultimatum. The discussions were within the Contact Group and produced a unanimous outcome. That would have involved officials of the United States of America and the Russian Federation as well as of the United Kingdom. A consensus was established. There is no suggestion of any form of ultimatum within the time span that has been put forward, but there is an ultimatum on the table. It is part and parcel of the Holbrooke agreement. The actords uniquely remain in place. We have made it clear that if President Milosevic is not willing to comply with the agreement that he came to, we can act, and we will act, if necessary, without notice.

The hon. Gentleman quoted the Prime Minister's comments, but with an implication that he chose and that the Prime Minister did not make. If NATO is involved in considering military action, whether from the air or, subsequent to a political agreement, on the ground, Britain would of course want to be associated with any collective decision on that basis. In the meantime, the pressure must be on the two warring parties to establish a political dialogue and come to a long-term agreement, without which there will be no peace in Kosovo. We have made it absolutely clear where the burden of responsibility lies: it is on President Milosevic. If he is not willing to sign up to the Contact Group's modest, concrete, sensible proposals, he will have no one to blame but himself.

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